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For years, Cape May County had to settle for postsecondary education classes that were housed in a commercial building off Rio Grande Avenue or students traveled the Garden State Parkway to Atlantic Community College in Mays Landing. 

It was a long fight to get a college of our own, and even there we had to settle. The state refused to allow Cape May County to have its own institution and what finally resulted was an arrangement that created Atlantic Cape Community College (ACCC), a shared institution with a branch campus in Court House.  

The arrangement was greeted with much enthusiasm, as the county’s political leaders saw the brick-and-mortar building as proof of a mission accomplished. That was in 2005. Now, 16 years later, the building is often almost deserted, the parking lot dotted with a few cars.  

The branch campus has had declining enrollments for most of a decade, with a minor recent uptick when the state introduced its “free community college” program that promised the last dollars needed after all federal aid and other funding sources were fully tapped. The problems persist.

To be clear, these have not been good years for community colleges in general. Many have lost their way. Community colleges began as teaching institutions with strong connections to the life of the communities they served. Their goals were access, affordability, and public service. They were locations where the curriculum had strong ties to workforce needs in the economy.  

The community college was a place for new starts. A place for the older student to get needed training, for the anxious adult to reenter the world of postsecondary education years after his/her high school preparation was over.  

The county colleges had many reasons to exist. Whatever the mix of programs, the colleges were vibrant parts of their communities. Face it. Many in Cape May County have no idea where the ACCC campus is, nor any reason to learn.  

A check of the president’s report, a summary of the month’s happenings given at each monthly trustee meeting, contains a section on community outreach. The list of activities showed two events in Cape May County for all of 2021 through September. One was a booth at the annual Whitesboro Reunion and the other was the supply of 200 bags of school supplies for attendees at a zoo event. The same section of the report lists numerous activities in Atlantic County. 

Cape May County is the junior partner in a joint college arrangement where the senior partner, the Atlantic County campus, is struggling. That leaves very little in the way of resources for us. It also leaves a leadership void since our county political leaders easily overlook the enrollment declines and the lack of community involvement as someone else’s leadership problem.  

We make our annual contribution. We get our annual report from the college president, and that issue is off the agenda, usually with compliments all around at the required public meeting.  

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released numbers Oct. 26 that make taking a proactive stance essential. Higher education, in general, is witnessing the largest two-year enrollment decline in 50 years. Broad access institutions, including public two-year community colleges, are seeing the greatest declines.  

The report shows that low- and moderate-income young adults are leading the retreat from the ivory tower. Many are electing work over college drawn by a national shortage of some 5 million workers who have left the workplace. Only the 200 or so most selective schools, often with the highest tuitions, are seeing an application surge.  

The consequences of all of this are difficult to sort out, but one cause is relatively easy to see. The community college needs to reinvigorate its role as a center of community learning and training. It must seek relevance, not assume it. Political leaders need to start paying attention instead of just paying the bill. 

In that search for a new identity, we have models, some close to home. The links that Gloucester Community College and Burlington Community College forged with Rowan University brought new opportunities to education in those counties. This is just one example of a new way to organize, to marshal resources. 

Community colleges are already affordable. We will not fix the problems by making them free. The issues relate to quality, relevance, and purpose.  

We must do better by students who have been told the community college is a wise steppingstone to a four-year degree. Today, a community college degree-seeking student has a 40% chance of earning that credential. Of those who declare an intent to transfer to four-year schools, only 16% succeed in doing so.  

Low completion rates, high levels of remedial course work, high loan default rates, weak workforce development efforts and an increasing lack of relevance to career goals; these are problems that are not solved without educational, political and community leaders seeking to solve them.  

What initiatives there are at ACCC, like the Wind Training Center, are not coming to Cape May County. 

Community colleges have been and are in trouble. ACCC is among the New Jersey county colleges struggling the most. At the end of that chain is a branch campus in a low population county that depends almost completely on a seasonal economy.  

We need to work at making what educational resources we have more relevant to the life of the county and more responsive to the needs of our youth. Sixteen years of the model we have now shows it is not the answer.  

Things need to change, and some strategic thinking and conversation must lead that change. We call on the County Commissioners to establish a planning group of county community representatives, political leaders, business owners and education leaders to rethink the postsecondary opportunities in the county. We need to consider a new model from the ground up and we need to do it now.  

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From the Bible:    

When one has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him.” From Luke 14 

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